Maine voters put the brakes on a project to deliver hydropower from Quebec to Massachusetts in a referendum Tuesday. The utility company behind the plan filed a lawsuit the following day, challenging the constitutionality of the ballot question.
The Baker administration had been counting on the hydropower project to help Massachusetts meet its goals to decrease carbon output, but Maine voters approved a ballot measure Tuesday that would ban the construction of "high-impact" transmission lines through their state. The lawsuit argues the ballot question violated the company's rights by retroactively blocking a project that followed the law in place when it received full regulatory approvals.
The 145-mile transmission project was opposed by some Maine environmental groups, which argued it would damage the state's woods, waters and wildlife.
"It puts a cloud over this project about how or if the project can move forward," said Peter Rothstein, president of Northeast Clean Energy Council, an organization representing the clean energy industry in the region, including Avangrid, the parent company behind the project.
Thorn Dickinson, President and CEO of New England Clean Energy Connect Transmission LLC, said in a statement that the referendum was "an act of bad faith by self-interested proponents."
“We have followed the rules every step of the way in a transparent and public process and have received every regulatory approval required for this project to proceed, however, fossil fuel companies have done everything they can, including misleading Mainers, to try and block this clean energy project,” Dickinson said.
It's not enough to build up large renewable energy projects in Massachusetts, Rothstein said. In order to increase renewable energy in the Commonwealth, the transmission system also has to be improved.
"This is one of the challenges of meeting our climate and clean energy goals for our state and for our region," Rothstein said. "We need to be able to both think specifically and carefully about the projects and the siting, but then also be able to make moves to upgrade the electricity system, the network, the grid, so it's able to be built at a scale in which it can handle this new source of electricity that's going to come on and displace dirtier electricity."
As more cars are powered by electricity and more buildings are heated by electric heat pumps, Rothstein said, the power demand is going to increase.
"We're looking to do more with electricity," Rothstein said. "We need ways to bring more clean electricity onto the grid."
Earlier in the week, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker said it would set "a really difficult precedent" if Maine voters approved the measure.
"Truly electrifying big pieces of what is currently a fossil fuel-based economy isn't going to work if people aren't willing to accept transmission capacity to make that happen," Baker said on Monday. "You can't get from here to there without transmission capacity."
Baker's press office did not respond to GBH News' request for comment Wednesday following the referendum.
Some environmentalists told GBH News the state can meet its climate goals without Canadian hydropower, pointing to rooftop solar panels and the massive amounts of offshore wind potential.
"The good news is that despite the vote that happened in Maine, we have more than enough clean energy resources here in Massachusetts to meet our needs many times over," said Ben Hellerstein, state director for Environment Massachusetts. "While this probably will require some changes in the Baker administration's plans, it should not be an impediment to meeting our climate change goals and transitioning the state off of fossil fuels."
Hellerstein acknowledged the Maine vote is likely disappointing to members of Gov. Baker's administration.
"But I hope that they will channel that disappointment into looking at all of the ways that we can accelerate solar, wind and other clean energy opportunities here in Massachusetts," he said.